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Pigeons are remarkably successful birds, nesting everywhere from the tropical rainforest canopy to apartment block balconies. The feral Pigeon (Columba livia domestica) has become one of the most abundant urban bird species in many parts of the world, partly because of its natural breeding strategy.
Pigeons are prolific breeders, despite laying small clutches of just one or two eggs. Their success comes down to excellent care, provided by both parents and the ability to nest throughout the year rather than waiting for a specific season.
Understanding Pigeon breeding behavior isn’t just interesting - it also allows us to encourage (or discourage) these birds from nesting, potentially bolstering struggling wild species or controlling invasive Pigeons in areas where they are less than welcome.
There’s much more to learn about Pigeon nesting. Read along with us as we unpack the breeding strategy of one of the world’s most ubiquitous birds!
Pigeons develop stable, long-term bonds, and pairs may form at any time of the year
Pigeons can first breed when they are about six months old. They develop stable, long-term bonds, and pairs may form at any time of the year. They are unusual among birds because they can breed in any month of the year when weather conditions and food resources allow it.
Depending on the local climate, there may be clear peaks in their breeding season, typically in spring and summer. Nesting often decreases in the fall/autumn (when the birds molt) and during the winter in colder areas.
The various Pigeon species nest in many different habitats, including trees and other vegetation, cliffs, ledges, and even the ground. The ideal location is sheltered from the elements, safe from ground predators, and near good foraging grounds with a reliable food source. The male Pigeon is responsible for finding the site and will call from his chosen spot to attract his mate.
While the wild Rock Dove typically nests on flat ledges on mountains and coastal cliffs, their feral descendants prefer human-made structures. Feral Pigeons will use a variety of sheltered artificial ledges, ranging from balconies and window sills to bridges, barns, and signboards.
Feral Pigeons will use a variety of sheltered artificial ledges, ranging from balconies and window sills to bridges, barns, and signboards
Pigeons are not exactly renowned for their nest-building skills, although they must be doing something right, considering the great success of various species in their family!
Pigeons build a simple platform nest which may grow quite large over the years as they reuse the site without removing their waste. They use various materials to build their nests, although twigs are usually favored. Other common materials include grass, feathers, leaves, and other plant material.
Both males and females contribute to nest construction, although they have different roles. The female stays at the nest site and does the actual building with materials brought in by the male. The male makes many trips, collecting just one twig at a time, while the female bird stays put and builds the nest around her body.
Pictured: A Wood Pigeon collecting twigs for nest building
Feral Pigeons can lay one to three eggs, although a typical clutch consists of two. The first egg is laid about eight days after mating, and the second two days later. Their eggs are pure white, and although their size varies, they usually measure about 39 millimeters long and 29 millimeters wide.
Both parents share incubation duty so that the eggs are well protected from extreme temperatures. The female usually incubates from late afternoon through to the following morning, and the male sits on the eggs for most of the day. Feral Pigeon eggs typically hatch after about 18 days.
Feral Pigeons can lay one to three eggs, although a typical clutch consists of two
Pigeon chicks hatch out blind and helpless, completely reliant on their devoted parents for warmth and food. They weigh just 15 grams when they hatch but grow quickly, tripling or even quadrupling their hatching weight by the end of their first week in some breeds. In the warmer months, Pigeon squabs might fledge the nest in less than four weeks, although they develop more slowly in winter, sometimes fledging after more than six weeks.
Adults feed their young a nutritious, protein and fat-rich fluid known as crop or Pigeon milk. This substance is produced by both parents and is one of the key reasons that Pigeons can nest at any time of the year. Instead of relying on seasonal food sources like insects as a protein source for their young, Pigeons can provide their squabs with adequate nutrition from a purely vegetarian diet.
Pigeon squabs are initially fed only with Pigeon milk and require several meals daily. Their eyes open on their fourth or fifth day, around the time they receive their first solid foods. Feeding decreases to two meals per day in their second week when they are weaned onto a completely solid diet.
The young birds are fully feathered and ready to fledge at four to six weeks. They may be significantly heavier than their adult weight when they leave the nest, although they lose weight fast during their first few weeks of foraging for themselves.
Pigeon squabs are initially fed only with Pigeon milk and require several meals daily
Nesting is a dangerous time for adult Pigeons, their eggs, and their chicks. Successful breeding is an energy-expensive behavior for adults. Building a nest, incubating, and caring for young requires time and energy, potentially leaving adult birds more vulnerable to predators and illness.
Pigeon eggs and young are particularly vulnerable to predators like Corvids, Owls, Raptors, and mammals like rats, raccoons, and opossums. Bad weather during the nesting period is the ultimate test of their nest site choice, as their young can perish when exposed to rain or strong winds.
Even when the weather plays along, nesting on ledges is always a danger. Their young occasionally fall to their deaths or become trapped in areas where their parents cannot feed them. In the urban environment, Feral Pigeons are seen as pests by many people, and their nests are often removed from accessible sites.
Continue reading to learn more about urban Pigeon nesting.
Pictured: A Wood Pigeon parent with young chick. Pigeon eggs and young are particularly vulnerable to predators like Corvids, Owls, Raptors, and mammals like rats, raccoons, and opossums
The feral form of the wild Rock Dove, scientifically known as Columba livia domestica, has become an everyday part of urban life in cities across the globe. These birds escaped captivity and found perfect nesting and roosting sites on our buildings, with a ready supply of grain and animal feeds in nearby farming areas and plenty of scraps on city streets.
Despite our long history with these birds, urban Pigeons are increasingly seen as a nuisance and even a danger in modern society. By fouling buildings and streets with their droppings and potentially spreading diseases to humans, they have come to be seen as a pest in many areas.
Feral Pigeons are an exotic species across most of their range, and they are not protected in some countries, including the United States (consult state and local laws). Even so, deterring Pigeons by limiting nesting sites and food sources in urban areas might be a more practical (and more humane) long-term solution than destroying birds or their nests.
The feral form of the wild Rock Dove, scientifically known as Columba livia domestica, has become an everyday part of urban life in cities across the globe
Pigeon squabs can fledge as early as 25 days under ideal conditions in the warmer months, although some remain in the nest for up to 45 days in the winter.
Feral Pigeons can be prolific breeders, with reports of up to six broods per year. Captive birds are even more productive and have been known to raise more than ten broods!
It’s always best to avoid disturbing a bird’s nest until they have finished nesting. However, if you must move a Pigeon’s nest (and it’s legal in your area), plan ahead, and move it to a very similar position close nearby. Wear gloves when handling the nest, and keep the procedure as short as possible to limit stress on the birds.
Pigeons form long-term pairs, and they typically reuse their nests. If disturbed, the adult bird will usually leave the nest but return as soon as it feels safe.
While some wild Pigeon and Dove species prefer to nest on the floor, most prefer to nest above the ground on ledges or in trees. It’s not unusual for Feral Pigeons to nest on the ground, although they will usually select a sheltered area under cover or in the corner of an abandoned building.
Pigeons only spend the night on their nest when incubating eggs, and then it is typically the female that handles the ‘night shift’. Wild Pigeons usually sleep elsewhere in sheltered spots like trees, but Feral Pigeons prefer man-made structures like buildings and bridges.
Pigeons and Doves will often nest around your home without any encouragement, and watching them raise their young can be a joy. Depending on their species, Pigeons may choose to nest in a tree in your yard or even in a sheltered spot on your building. Providing fresh and hygienic food and water sources and limiting access to cats and dogs are great ways to attract nesting birds around your home.
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